I suspect the relentlessness of the ways Diana was pursued by the British media will be shocking for Americans, even with the knowledge of how she died. That there were news reports attesting to Diana’s virginity before she married the 32-year-old prince particularly so. For Brits, although cringeworthy now, it’s mostly a reminder of the pressure Charles was under to find a virginal wife from an appropriate bloodline. (And the fact that such draconian royal rules only fell by the wayside after Charles and Diana’s 1992 separation threatened the very existence of the royal family.)
Americans may also be surprised by the degree of hostility Diana dealt with from the royal family, even early on, before she had rebelled against them. In one particularly shocking clip, when Princess Anne (Charles’ sister) is asked what she thinks about the birth of Charles and Diana’s first son, she shrugs and says, “I didn’t know she’d had one.” (Watching this 1982 footage now, it’s impossible not to think of Diana’s daughter-in-law Meghan Markle, and the reception she got when she joined “the firm.”)
The hindsight we are afforded now provides a chill to The Princess that is hard to shake off. Over footage of her looking lost and alone at the Taj Mahal in 1992, we hear one cultural critic state: “When you put a modern person in an ancient institution, they will be destroyed. Once an institution starts destroying people, it’s time to recognize that there’s something fundamentally wrong with that institution.” Thirty years later, and that institution continues to trundle on.
The Princess is also careful to remind us that, when it came to Diana, the buck was passed in a circular motion, both before and after her death. The paparazzi blamed tabloid editors for buying their photos. The tabloid editors blamed the public for buying the papers those pictures were printed in. And the public either blamed Diana for calling on the media too much, or the media for putting too much of Diana’s personal life in their pages. One pundit’s prediction that “all this telephoto lens business” would stop once Diana had married Charles reflects just how unprecedented her situation was.
As with those lectures I sat through in 1997, the thing that most sticks with me after viewing The Princess are the ethical questions surrounding what rights the press has when it comes to pursuing public figures. What rights does the public have to tear a person down en masse simply because they’re famous? Framing Britney Spears and Impeachment: American Crime Story both recently explored these issues very well, but there is a quiet, institutional insidiousness present in it The Princess that is particularly upsetting.